Did you know the #1 criteria that college admissions officers are looking for in the admissions process is a rigorous high school curriculum? That’s right your high school transcript is “numero uno” in the evaluation process. Admissions officers need to be assured that you can do the work! They look for students who have challenged themselves in say, AP or Honors courses, or someone who took a risk on a course that wasn’t supposed to be an “easy A." Colleges would much rather see a “B” knowing you took a risk and learned something about yourself. Upward trends are also looked upon favorably by admissions, so don’t get down on yourself if you may have been a slow starter.
The second most important of the college admissions factors to consider is still standardized testing- your SAT or ACT scores. Test scores are used in so many different ways that it is a good practice to read the college’s testing policy on their website before you apply. Some colleges will superscore SAT or ACT scores-or take a student’s highest subscores from different test dates to form a new, higher score. There are even colleges out there that do not require test scores- a good option for students whose testing may not be consistent with their high school performance (refer to Test Optional in last month’s article “Standardized Testing- The Old and The New”). As college admissions evolves and colleges find new and better ways of forecasting success beyond the transcript, I do expect more and more colleges to jump on board with Test Optional or Test Flexible plans, but right now, it is still one of the most important factors for admission, placement and scholarship consideration.
An applicant’s personal statement is a very important piece to the evaluation process. This personalized, thoughtful essay first and foremost must answer the question, but also offer the committee more insight into who you are, your goals and what you value. Maybe even give them a glimpse into your personality, sense of humor, and what excites you. In addition to the personal statement, applicants will have writing supplements (additional essay questions or short answer questions) to complete in the application. These are usually more specific to the college, your desired program and your “fit.” Expect to do some research on the college website- I also recommend keeping notes from your college visits. Did you meet a professor? Sit in on a class? Meet an inspiring student? Maybe you were lucky enough to meet the President at the college? Note their name and context of your interaction and you may be able to work them into your college-specific essays.
Leadership, involvement (extracurricular activities/community service), and passion would be next in my chronological list of important factors in the admissions process. I believe the three go hand in hand and what colleges look for are commitment and depth. If you get involved in something, whether it’s a school club such as Student Council or volunteering at a local Kids Camp, and have a meaningful experience helping others or bettering your school- I bet you will become passionate about it and continue doing great things! Colleges are looking for leaders- students who arrive on campus ready to get involved and make a difference! Colleges want to know what you will bring to campus and how you will contribute.
Another important factor is diversity- geographic, ethnic, cultural, political and economical. Colleges are seeking freshmen classes that round out their campus and represent all walks of life from all corners of the world. They also are looking for students who are eager to learn and want to be on their campus- as in, it’s your first choice! Another way to stand out in admissions is if you are flagged for a special talent such as a recruited athlete, musician, artist, innovator, or even a legacy (one of your parents, or perhaps a grandparent attended that school). These “hooks” may be just what they are looking for and your way in! You may not ever exactly know what area a college is trying to diversify, so this, unfortunately, is a factor that is truly out of your control, but worth noting.
Letters of recommendation from teachers and your guidance counselor are also important college admissions factors. Teachers are asked to comment on your abilities, intellect and potential in the context of their specific course (and level) while noting your success in the context of your classmates and school. They know you best because they are the ones experiencing your growth as you persevere through challenges and triumphs on a daily basis. Choose teachers that you feel know you and your abilities best. Guidance Counselors can give anecdotal evidence that speaks to your integrity, character, service, personality, contributions to your school, interest in learning and academic promise. Many schools use “Brag Sheets” which give you (and your parents) an opportunity to give input (highlight your best attributes and accomplishments) into your letter of recommendation.
My tips for the admissions process:
- Challenge yourself! Choose the right courses, as rigorous as you can handle, that align to your goals.
- Take the SAT/ACT Comparison Test in the spring of your sophomore year to determine which test you will focus on and prep for.
- Distinguish yourself through your extracurricular activities. Depth over breadth. Strive for leadership positions.
- Keep track of your activities and involvement starting in 9th This will help tremendously with your resume and the “Activities” section of the Common Application!
- Demonstrate interest in colleges by visiting campus, attending fairs and college rep meetings, as well as local information sessions.
- Get to know your teachers and counselor!
- Explore majors and careers through summer programs, internships and shadowing opportunities by the end of junior year.
- Get a head start on the college application process the summer before senior year! (that’s where I can help!)
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